The Story of Brother Roger and Taizé


“Poetry — that is what the Church should be!” announced Brother Roger, founder of an ecumenical community of Roman Catholic and Protestant brothers in the tiny village of Taizé, France. That was in 1985, when he was approaching seventy.

Brother Roger himself was a poet who drew his inspiration from nature. He was a gentle man, a mystic who valued intuition as highly as intelligence: “In the life of the gospel,” he once told me, “Intuition. . . enables us to discern the reflection of God. And that is all we can do. We can try to approach the immeasurable mystery that is God. In our life here we do not know that mystery, but we draw near to it a good deal and that is enough for me.”

His was not a detached, ethereal vision. Brother Roger understood the church as the presence of the risen Christ in people’s lives. His yearning for reconciliation was rooted in the desire to bring together the separated members of this body. Brother Roger believed deeply in rendering the gospel concrete. That was why he devoted himself to Taizé — to living “a parable of communion.”

Preparing the Way of the Lord

Roger Schutz was born on May 12, 1915, in the village of Provence, Switzerland. His early life was solitary buthappy despite several years of illness with tuberculosis.

He read extensively and studied the examples of those around him: his father, a Swiss Protestant pastor, who “liked to pray in Catholic churches” and who was profoundly attentive to the needs of his poor parishioners; his artistic and generous-spirited mother; his musical aunt; and his maternal grandmother, who remained in northern France during the First World War and took in refugees from the battle zone even when two bombs hit her house. When finally persuaded to leave, his grandmother moved to southwest France, where – while remaining faithful to her Protestant origins – she attended Catholic Mass. Young Roger somehow understood: by going to the Catholic Church, she was bringing about a kind of reconciliation within herself.

This grandmother’s example stood before Roger when the Second World War broke out. Seeing Europe once more divided, he asked himself why such conflict should exist between people in general, and between Christians in particular. He had considered a career as a writer. But he dropped those plans when he felt himself “impelled” to build a community in which reconciliation and peace would be lived out daily.

In 1940, in search of a way to realize his vision, Roger cycled from Switzerland into France. He settled in the tiny village of Taizé, just a few miles from the demarcation line that separated free from occupied France. His ideas were forming: “To begin with, I must start a life of prayer alone. I would find a house. There would be prayer in the morning, at midday, and in the evening, and I would take in those who were fleeing.” At the age of twenty-four, Roger dimly envisaged a dozen men leading a life centered on the call to “prepare the way of the Lord” and to “be one. . . so that the world may believe” (Mark 1:3; John 17:21).

First Steps in Ecumenism

When the Taizé community began, the ecumenical movement had scarcely started. Roger’s pioneering vision was not always understood. He and the first brothers to join him—all of them Protestants—asked to pray in the local Catholic church, which was no longer in use. Permission was granted, but only if they did not allow Catholics to join them. How, then, could they fulfill their calling to let others see their life together and so communicate “the little bit of gospel” they had grasped?

Fortunately, by the early 1950s, the ecumenical movement was taking its first steps in the Archdiocese of Lyon, the birthplace of another pioneer, Paul Couturier. The first Catholic brother joined the Taizé community in 1969. Through the intervention of his archbishop, Brother Roger met Pope Pius XII and then Pope John XXIII, who had a lasting impact on the growing community. At a time when Brother Roger was asking where Taizé’s place might be in relation to the universal church, Pope John reminded him that “the church is ever-widening concentric circles.”

The Path of Reconciliation

Whenever obstacles to ecumenism arose, Brother Roger never lost his trust that a path to reconciliation could still be found. Increasingly, he referred to the way of his grandmother: “a little way which is a personal step, an inner hidden way, rooted in the secret of the gospel, a way of forgiveness.”

Without humiliating anyone, without becoming a symbol of denial for anyone, he believed that it is possible to embrace within oneself the attention to the word of God so profoundly lived in the Reform tradition, the treasures of the spirituality of the Orthodox tradition, and all the charisms of communion of the Catholic Church, all the while, daily putting one’s trust in the mystery of faith.

The intellect and theology have their value, Brother Roger believed, but ultimately, reconciliation is a question of love. It is by loving that the mystery of God in his communion is discovered. This love, he stressed, must be expressed in symbolic but concrete ways -hence Taizé, a visible expression of reconciliation and living charity.

Solidarity with the Poor

From the beginning, Brother Roger considered it vital to live in communion with the poor. The village of Taizé, in which he began his “parable of communion,” was ideal in this regard: It was a “desert.” The local vineyards had been blighted by disease. Many of the men had gone elsewhere to find work. Those who remained subscribed more readily to the atheistic philosopher Voltaire than to Christianity.

In fact, Roger’s choice of location came through the request of a poor woman who provided him with a much-needed meal. “Stay here,” she urged. “We are so alone. There is no one left in the village, and the winters are long and cold.” The appeal of one so poor convinced him that it was the will of God.

The desire to be close to the poor in gospel simplicity led to Roger’s taking in Jewish refugees. After the war, the Taizé community welcomed German prisoners of war, and then a multitude of others with different needs.

In 1951, two Taizé brothers went to live and work in a nearby mining area. At the beginning of the 1970s, the community opened its first “fraternity” of a few brothers sharing the lives of poverty-stricken people. In time, several began life in Recife, Brazil, and later in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, in Kenya, Korea, Bangladesh, India, and elsewhere.

Ark of Prayer and Sharing

The “desert” of Taizé bloomed, and the community grew far beyond its founder’s expectations. Since then, people of different denominations and nationalities have flocked by tens of thousands to Taizé. Thousands also attend the Taizé meetings held annually in European cities and on other continents as part of a “Pilgrimage of Trust on Earth.” Young people are attracted by Taizé’s form of worship, which all Christians can join in anticipation of the deeper unity and communion for which Jesus prayed.

Taizé’s visitors camp out on the often-muddy hillside, eat simple food, and attend the community’s “common prayer” three times a day. This worship features distinctive Taizé songs, used in churches throughout the world, made up of repeated sentences sung in various languages, set to easily accessible music. The songs lead spontaneously to prayer and to that silence in which God may speak.

Leading this prayer, and available to listen and share rather than instruct, are some hundred brothers – Catholics and Protestants – from more than twenty-five countries. Members of the Orthodox Church also live with them on a semi-permanent basis.

Struggle and Contemplation

Whenever young people approached him, with eagerness to change the world through active intervention, Brother Roger insisted that it was not a matter of choosing between action – or “struggle” – and contemplation. Rather, he told them, the two are interdependent. Contemplative expectation, along with trust in the God who first loved us, provide the energy for compassion and unlimited possibilities even in moments of severest trial.

Without warning, such a moment of trial descended on the Taizé community and its guests on August 16, 2005. During evening prayer, a mentally ill woman attacked Brother Roger and stabbed him to death. It was not the end anyone would have expected for the gentle, much-loved prior of Taizé. And yet it was an opportunity for a moving restatement of Taizé’s mission. Before the twelve thousand mourners — among them Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, and Anglican religious leaders — Taizé’s new prior, Brother Alois, committed the community to continuing its vocation of forgiveness and peace.

During a visit in 1986, Pope John Paul II referred to passing through Taizé “as one passes close to a spring.” Indeed, at Taizé visitors continue to drink the living water promised by Christ. Refreshed, they can set out to witness and serve in their own parishes, becoming “the leaven of trust in the human family.”

Kathryn Spink is the author of biographies, including ‘Mother Teresa: An Authorized Biography’ and ‘A Universal Heart: The Life and Vision of Brother Roger of Taizé.’

Credit: ‘Word Among Us’ – Indian edition.

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